American Recovery Depends on Getting Out of Afghanistan
Trump is right to push the military to withdraw—so why don't they?
Reports surfaced recently that Trump has been privately pushing his senior military advisors to present a plan to end the war in Afghanistan and bring the troops home. The ostensible causal event is the risk to the troops of an expanding COVID-19 outbreak in the country, but there is a far more fundamental reason why this move should be encouraged: U.S. interests are best served by a military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The pushback to Trump’s intent was swift and predictable. Military advisors, NBC News reported, told Trump that if he were to pull troops out of Afghanistan owing to coronavirus fears, “the Pentagon would also have to pull troops out of such places as Italy,” which has a higher COVID-19 death toll. Leaving aside for the moment that there may well be value in redeploying our troops out of Italy, there are a number of compelling reasons for Trump to end the Afghan war.
As has been the case for decades, some of the most notorious and vocal defenders of the forever war in Afghanistan claim that ending the war there would invite a new 9/11, that a withdrawal would be “indefensible” and would sacrifice all we have built there, and that our efforts there are now succeeding and we just need to give it more time. Evidence overwhelmingly proves none of these claims are accurate.
The initial strategic objectives then-President Bush gave the military to accomplish in October 2001 were reasonable, attainable, and limited: destroy Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan and punish the Taliban for hosting them. By late spring of the following year the Taliban were driven from power and Al-Qaeda’s membership was decimated.
Had Bush been willing to take the win and withdraw the troops, we could have saved our country hundreds of billions and the lives and limbs of tens of thousands of American troops over two decades. Instead, he changed the mission to nation-building—inviting disastrous consequences.
In 2007 Bush unveiled a new strategy in which he said the U.S. would help the Afghan government “establish a stable, moderate, and democratic state that respects the rights of its citizens, governs its territory effectively, and is a reliable ally in this war against extremists and terrorists.” That mission was militarily unattainable and locked us into a no-win situation. When he first took office, Obama dug the unwinnable hole deeper, and then proved content to passively ride out the status quo until he could push it into Trump’s lap.
Trump had long lobbied to withdraw from Afghanistan prior to winning the 2016 election, but the biggest impediment to his making good on that solid instinct has been influential beltway insiders raised in the mold of Cold Warriors. One such person is Sen. Lindsey Graham, who publicly told Trump that if he withdrew from Afghanistan, “there will be another 9/11.” That fear, as I have explained in detail, is based on a significant lack of understanding of how the original 9/11 was developed and inadequate knowledge of the powerful global tools at Trump’s disposal to keep us safe from any new terrorist strike.
Others suggest that things are getting better, and in any case, we have invested too much to leave it behind. We just need to give the Afghan government more time, this line of thinking suggests. But that fails to acknowledge the elephant in the room: overwhelming evidence confirms nearly two full decades of giving just a little more time has been wholly fruitless. Seven full months after their presidential election, Kabul still has not resolved the charges of voter fraud and two men swore themselves in as the rightful president.
Trump’s instincts on Afghanistan were right before he became president, they have been right over the past three years, and they are right today: the best thing he can do to preserve American national security and financial prosperity is to end the war and conduct a professional withdrawal, closely coordinated with our allies. Leaving may indeed cause a spike in violence in Afghanistan, but staying will perversely maintain the violence while perpetually draining America of blood and treasure. It’s time to recognize reality and end the war.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.